Education Becomes the New Casualty in Baquba

BAQUBA — The alarming security situation in Diyala province north of Baghdad has killed off much of the education system.

The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq had at first brought hope. Salaries were increased; a newly appointed primary or secondary school teacher was given 200,000 Iraqi Dinars, about 150 dollars a month.

In September 2006, the Ministry of Education increased teachers’ salaries by 20 to 50 percent in an attempt to entice them to stay in their jobs.

But in Diyala capital Baquba, 40km north of Baghdad, lack of security means many teachers have quit, and children are not going to school.

This is a trend across Iraq. According to a report released last year by the non-governmental group Save the Children, 818,000 children of primary school age, representing 22 percent of Iraq’s potential student population, were not attending school.

“We suffer so much because of the problem just of going from home to school; no one can easily move in the streets,” Layla Hussein, a secondary school teacher told IPS in Baquba. “The militants are everywhere.”

The security situation remains volatile despite massive U.S.-led military operations to rid Diyala province of militiamen, al-Qaeda and resistance fighters.

“Day after day our education system is in decline,” primary school teacher Juma’a Jabur told IPS. “One should ask who will benefit from stoppage of school work, and from keeping the boys and girls at home.”

Sectarian militias have regularly entered schools, and no guard has dared stand in their way.

“Sometimes, they come to ask about Shia teachers, or even about Sunnis,” Nasir Hamza at the directorate-general of education told IPS. “Shia teachers have stopped coming to school for fear of being killed by the militants.” As a result, Hamza said, many teachers have stopped coming to work. “The staff is not enough, so we had to start cutting classes.”

Scores of teachers have been killed in Diyala province, says Hamza. Many schools have ceased to function entirely.

“The head of the school and his assistant may be threatened and forced to stay home or to quit, so one of the teachers becomes the head in order to keep work moving,” a member of the local council of Baquba, speaking on condition of anonymity, told IPS. “As a result, no good outcomes can be attained on the level and performance of the pupils.”

Displacement as a result of violence has also taken its toll on education.

“All the teachers who work in schools located outside their villages or cities have asked to be moved to schools near their homes because of the difficulty in getting anywhere,” Hatam Abi, department manager at the directorate-general of education in Baquba told IPS. “As much as we can, we do move all the teachers near their homes.”

While the level of violence is down in Diyala for the moment, other difficulties afflict the education system. Examination papers did not reach pupils in many Diyala schools earlier this year. And the results were extraordinary. “What happened is that the pupils faked their answers; all the pupils in the same class had the same answers,” said Jabur.

“The teachers who were in charge of monitoring the pupils allowed the pupils to share the answers under threat,” a teacher told IPS on condition of anonymity.

The result of all this will be serious, the teacher said. “This has happened for the first time in the history of Iraq, and it will have a direct effect on a whole generation.”

(*Ahmed, our correspondent in Iraq’s Diyala province, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, our U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who travels extensively in the region)